Culture Magazine

Believing & Perceiving

By Cris

Every once in a while, I encounter studies that deserve a category of their own. If I were feeling churlish, I might place them in a “No Sh*t” file; if I were feeling humorous, I might place them in my Bart Simpson “D’oh” folder.

It is an uncontroversial truism that learning affects perception and experience. This is, after all, the entire purpose of teaching children and what we call culture. Our perceptions of the world do not come to us directly — we filter everything through a brain that has been heavily conditioned by prior experience and learning.

If those experiences include instruction in religion and exposure to religion, it is reasonable to assume this will affect perception. Although I never had much doubt about these effects, it is good to know they have been experimentally verified. You can find the study here, and it demonstrates the obvious: religionists attend to the world differently than do non-religionists. Call it the power of education or indoctrination, whatever your preference.

If those experiences include massive cultural exposure to alleged paranormal phenomena (which it certainly will in America, one of the most credulous nations on earth), it is reasonable to assume this too will affect perception. You will not be surprised to learn this is indeed the case. People who profess prior belief in psi, ESP, spiritualism, and precognition are much more likely to experience “oceanic” or “transcendental” consciousness during shamanic sweat lodge ceremonies than their non-believing counterparts. The latter may lose a lot of water and feel relaxed, but they are not transported to inner or other worlds.

So there we have it: empirical and statistical proof that learning and experience condition our expectations and perceptions. I am glad these issues are now settled.

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